Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is Thor Kenneth Branagh's Nordic Messiah?

CAUTION: This essay contains spoilers.

Chris Hemsworth (left) as Thor;
Anthony Hopkins as Odin
The son of the Father comes to Earth in human flesh, where new-found limitations grant him insight into the human condition—and show mere mortals the reality of Heaven.  But when the time comes, he must die at the Destroyer’s hand, a reality he accepts but his people cannot.  Only after he dies can he overcome the Deceiver and restore order and justice to all Creation.

Sound familiar?  It should if you saw Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Thor, the latest live-action film using computer graphic technology to recreate popular comic books.  Yet I can’t help thinking this narrative sounds familiar from someplace.  Someplace... I don’t know... older, perhaps, with a powerful mythic component.  Let’s decipher it together.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the firstborn son of Odin All-Father, an honored warrior who sees his power purged by his father before he falls to Earth.  His first sight on opening human eyes is Natalie Portman, and we should all be so lucky.  Portman, as astrophysicist Jane Foster, believes only empirical evidence, so there must be a reason a muscular Swede just fell unharmed from the sky.

Much intervening content doesn’t matter here, since it isn’t a review.  Suffice it to say, if you like science fiction, fantasy, or mythic epics, this movie utilizes all three genres to create everything you expect in a comic book film directed by a man who founded his own Shakespeare company.  Only on second viewing, however, did I realize how much Joseph Campbell could mine from this film.

Near the end of Act II, Thor acknowledges his limitations. Though he still outdrinks Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd and awakens without a hangover, he can’t lift his hammer, outfight human soldiers, or return to Asgard. Several of his warrior friends come to retreive him, decked in full Nordic regalia, but he accepts his new lot: a recognition, perhaps, of humility as one necessary Earthly lesson.

Now mythology intrudes: Thor’s brother Loki sends a faceless humanoid creation, the Destroyer, to Earth to prevent Thor’s return. Loki orders it to “destroy everything.” It complies, pulverizing anything between it and Thor. It proves impervious to both human armaments and Asgardian strategy. Thor abandons his initial plan to evacuate the town, realizing only one action can save humanity.

When Thor plants himself between the Destroyer and the human race, no one should act surprised when it strikes him down. With his limited human frame, a blow like one that merely dazed his Asgardian friends shatters Thor’s body. As he lies dying in a dusty New Mexico street, Thor tells Portman—wait for it—“It’s over.” Twice!

Knowing what we do about human mythology, when a divine son says “It is finished” and dies, resurrection is inevitable.  The hammer Thor couldn’t lift the prior evening flies to his hand of its own volition, and Thor rises.  Not only is his body intact, but he wears the armor his father stripped from him.  Thor stands, glimmering in the sun, a god restored to his former glory.

Chris Hemsworth (right) as Thor;
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
Having died and returned in full form, Thor now has the ability no one else previously had to shatter the Destroyer.  But that’s not enough, since there’s a war under weigh in Heaven, or Asgard at any rate.  Thus Thor must ascend back to his father.  But before he goes, he promises Portman that, when the time is right and his duty is discharged, he will return for her.

Many comics, books, and movies utilize redemptive violence.  Neo in The Matrix had to die before overcoming the agents, and Harry Potter could not best Voldemort until he, too, died and was resurrected.  Neo is, of course, overtly messianic, seeking to redeem humankind from captivity, while Harry Potter derives from J.K. Rowling’s devout Christianity.  Thor is more problematic.

C.S. Lewis believed resurrection images permeate myth—Orpheus in Hades, Baldur in Hel—because God wanted to prepare humanity for Christ’s appearing.  Joseph Campbell took a more pragmatic angle, claiming that passing through death presaged assuming new, redemptive roles.  For him, resurrection symbolized a rudimentary Freudian progression from id-driven infancy to adult fulfillment.

Thor’s messianism is easier to observe than categorize.  He certainly saves humanity from the Destroyer, and Asgard from the Deceiver (portrayed by his brother Loki).  But he does not promise to save or return to everyone, only Portman’s character.  And unlike Jesus, he did not choose humanity, nor “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death.”  He came as punishment for disobedience.

ThorPerhaps we can place Thor’s significance by his film’s conclusion.  Having defeated all enemies and restored order, Thor has severed his ties to Earth, and cannot reach Portman.  He asks all-seeing Heimdall if he can see Portman on Earth.  As the camera surveys Portman’s lab, Heimdall intones: “She searches for you.”

As perhaps, in our own way, do we all.

Acknowledgment:  This essay would not be possible without the generous contributions of Reverends Baron and Nancy Cole, and of Sarah Cole (Hi, Honey!).

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